Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Chocolate Cupcakes

One of my favorite books to read to William is A Baby Sister for Frances. Frances is a cute little badger who makes up the most adorable songs, and that’s one of the reasons I like to read it to William, but I am glad this is a blog and I am not telling you about this in person, because there is no risk of your hearing my renditions of them. In this story, Frances astutely observes that since the baby joined their family, “Things are not very good around here anymore. No clothes to wear. No raisins for the oatmeal.” (Sounds like my house…maybe that is the reason I like the book so much.) Frances decides to run away to under the dining room table, and her parents display great wisdom in handling the situation. I covet their wisdom, and I covet the peacefulness of their household, and I covet the way Frances’ mother simply “whips up” a chocolate cake at the end of the story. Seriously, who just whips up a chocolate cake from scratch on a weeknight while the baby sleeps and the toddler looks on contentedly? Not me.

Ok, I lied. I found this great recipe for chocolate cake that I actually made one afternoon with William while Titus napped. It helps that it takes only one bowl, can be whisked by hand, and bakes up in about 30 minutes. Plus, the eggs go in last, which is nice because then I am not so worried about the kiddo snitching batter, which is what the majority of his “helping” consists of. Oh, he also put the cupcake liners in the pan, and I think he was rightfully pretty proud of himself.

This cake is rather delicate, so not ideal for cupcakes actually, but I might try to ignore that fact and make this my go-to chocolate cake recipe anyway. I like cupcakes better than layer cakes, but not just because they’re cute! Come on, you have to give cupcakes a little more credit than that. They’re actually very practical. You can bake a batch, eat some of them, and freeze the rest for another time, which is what I did. They’re also good for sharing. I could say they’re better for portion control, but that may or may not be true, because when you bake a full-size cake, if you eat a slice, it’s pretty obvious, but with cupcakes, you can eat one, just to taste test of course, and nobody really notices. And then you think, well, they are so small and cute, I can have one more. So maybe that’s not really a pro. But I do think they’re easier to frost. I highly recommend a simple decorating set like this; it took me mere minutes to frost the whole batch of cupcakes.  And the high cute to effort ratio meant I could experiment with different frostings, because I couldn’t make up my mind between espresso or peanut butter. Which, of course meant I had to test each flavor, plus eat several to see if which piping technique tasted the best. But again, that may not be a point in  cupcakes' favor from my hips’ point of view.

I’m providing you with both frosting recipes, so you can try them out and let me know which one you liked the best. Sam liked the espresso, I preferred the peanut butter, and I think William thoroughly enjoyed licking the funnel I used to get the chocolate sauce into a bottle for drizzling. While he ate it, he made up this song:

Nummy nummy
Nummy nummy stuff
Nummy nummy stuff

Sour Cream Chocolate Cake
Adapted from Sky High: Irresistible Triple-Layer Cakes by Alisa Hunstman and Peter Wynne, via Smitten Kitchen

Makes an 8-inch triple-layer cake, or about 3 dozen cupcakes 
  • 2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 2 1/2 cups sugar
  • 3/4 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
  • 2 teaspoons baking soda
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1 cup vegetable oil
  • 1 cup sour cream
  • 1 1/2 cups water
  • 2 tablespoons white or cider vinegar (I used the latter)
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 2 eggs
  1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Butter the bottoms and sides of three 8-inch round cakepans. Line the bottom of each pan with a round of parchment or waxed paper and butter the paper. Alternately, place cupcake liners in a muffin tin. 
  2. Use a whisk to combine flour, sugar, cocoa powder, baking soda, and salt in a large bowl. Add the oil and sour cream and whisk to blend. (This was very thick for me, but for some reason I was too dumb to switch out my whisk for a wooden spoon for this step. Don’t be like me, unless you like making things harder than they need to be.)
  3. Beat in the water, carefully, as it kind of wants to slosh out of the bowl. Blend in the vinegar and vanilla. Whisk in the eggs and beat until well blended. Scrape down the sides of the bowl and be sure the batter is well mixed. 
  4. Divide the batter among the three prepared cake pans or muffin tins. I used a standard cookie scoop to help portion my batter and found that roughly two scoops turned out to be just right. You want the batter to be about half an inch from the tops of your cupcake liners.
  5. Bake for 30 to 35 minutes for layer cakes, 15 minuted for cupcakes, or until a cake tester or wooden toothpick inserted in the center comes out almost clean.
  6. For layer cakes, let them cool in the pans for about 20 minutes. Invert onto wire racks, carefully peel off the paper liners, and let cool completely. Cupcakes are less fussy, but you do need to let them cool completely before frosting.
I must direct you to Smitten Kitchen for detailed directions on how to frost the layer cakes if that’s what you opted for. She also has some valuable tips on freezing to avoid the pitfalls of working with a very delicate layer cake. I didn’t find the cupcakes too soft to work with, but froze them anyway for longer storage. More on that in a moment. To decorate, I used the smaller star tip in my set and just followed the directions included with it. I used a little squirt bottle I bought at Hobby Lobby for the chocolate drizzle on the peanut butter cupcakes, and tapped a small mesh strainer filled with cocoa powder over the espresso ones.

To freeze cupcakes, let them cool completely, then arrange in a gallon-size freezer bag and seal, with as little air in the bag as possible. It’s best to take them out of the bag before you thaw them, so the tops don’t get gummy, but I didn’t, and it was just fine. I figure gummy tops are not a big deal since you’re going to frost them anyway.

Espresso Frosting
Adapted from The Pioneer Woman 
  • 12 tablespoons (1 ½ sticks) unsalted butter, at room temperature
  • 1 pound powdered sugar
  • 4 tablespoons instant espresso
  • ½ teaspoon salt
  • 5 tablespoons heavy cream or half-and-half
Beat butter until light and fluffy. Add confectioners’ sugar and salt and mix thoroughly, scraping down the bowl as needed. Continue to beat until light and fluffy, about 3 to 4 minutes. (I didn’t do this, but taking a cue from the peanut butter frosting, I’m suggesting it now.)

In a small bowl, mix cream and instant espresso until coffee crystals are dissolved. Add to butter/sugar mixture and beat until thoroughly blended.

Peanut Butter Frosting
Adapted from Sky High: Irresistible Triple-Layer Cakes by Alisa Hunstman and Peter Wynne, via Smitten Kitchen

Makes about 5 cups 
  • 10 ounces cream cheese, at room temperature
  • 8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter, at room temperature
  • 5 cups confectioners’ sugar, sifted
  • 1 1/3 cup smooth peanut butter, preferably a commercial brand (because the oil doesn't separate out)
In a large bowl with an electric mixer, beat the cream cheese and butter until light and fluffy. Gradually add the confectioners’ sugar about 1 cup at a time, mixing thoroughly after each addition and scraping down the sides of the bowl often. Continue to beat on medium speed until light and fluffy, 3 to 4 minutes.

Add the peanut butter and beat until thoroughly blended.

Chocolate Peanut Butter Drizzle
Adapted from Sky High: Irresistible Triple-Layer Cakes by Alisa Hunstman and Peter Wynne, via Smitten Kitchen

Makes about ¾ cup

Note: In the original recipe this is a glaze that drapes beautifully over the finished cake, but I halved it for my purposes and adapted it quite a bit. I recommend clicking over to Smitten Kitchen for the original recipe if you are making the layer cake, as it is a more fundamental part of the finished cake than my version. Still, it is deliciously more than just decoration and not to be missed. 
  • 4 ounces semisweet chocolate chips
  • 1-2 tablespoons smooth peanut butter
  • 1 tablespoon light corn syrup
  • 1/4 cup heavy cream or half-and-half
In the microwave, melt the chocolate, peanut butter, corn syrup, and cream. Heat for no more than 30 seconds at a time, whisking often, until the chocolate is melted and the mixture is smooth.

Use while still warm, but it helps if your base frosting is chilled.

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